Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is a movie about language - aristocratic language, democratic language, broken language and therapeutic language. And since the movie is set in Great Britain a place where class, as George Orwell observed, was branded on the tongue, it is invariably about the intimacies and shifts in class relations.

The future British King George VI has a speech problem - a stutter leaves him ill suited to lead the country as mass communications technology has dramatically expanded. The Nazi threat - the film takes place in the period leading up to World War II - calls for leadership skills to challenge Hitler - or at least enough verbal ability to help bolster the morale of the country. If public speaking creates paralyzing fear in many people, this Royal spends most of the film looking like he would rather face a German Panzer Division by himself than give a speech.

In order to raise himself to the leadership challenge George must first lower himself. With the help of his wife Elizabeth, the future "Queen Mother" as they say in Britain, they find unlicensed speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush). Logue operates outside of the circle of medical quacks who have been systematically and unsuccessfully applying their tortures.

While Logue is keen to push to the deeper levels of the King's psychological fear, apparently the product of an abusive upbringing, given the delicate social situation George and Elizabeth are content to stay focused on the "mechanics" of his stammer. In therapeutic language, Logue is admonished to operate "within the frame" of the clients experience. That frame is a rather limited one.

According to psychiatrist and communications theorist Paul Watzalawick, the best possible solution to seemingly intractable psychological problems is not to convince the person that their problems are illusory but to counter-intuitively move them in the direction of the greatest anxiety and therefore the strongest resistance. Logue does this by pushing George towards tasks that he believes he cannot successfully undertake. He is the perfect corner-man, massaging, cajoling and refining the tactical therapeutic attack.

Logue also adds a pinch of Freud to his approach by encouraging his client to express verbally whatever thoughts or emotions surface in his mind. There are some amusing scenes of the King spitting out expletives in a scatter-shot manner - a kind of vulgar free-association. George does not recline on Logue's couch but there is an inkling of Freud's belief that part of the methodological power of psychoanalysis derives from the "suspension of artfulness" in speech, the patient's freedom not to tell a story.

The writer Lionel Trilling suggested that it is possible at times to observe social morality in the process of revision. While watching The King's Speech I felt like I was watching the depiction of a "dominant class" confronting the evolving democratic ethos in Britain. Not only does Logue refer to the King as "Bertie," George's informal family name, he also insists that the King travel to Logue's office for their treatments. George, with aristocratic vulnerability, abides by Logue's rules in order to receive help. A dramatic shift in the social relations in Britain is contained in these subtle uses of language and the control of space.

At the beginning of the movie the dying King George V inquires of his son "Who will protect the country from Hitler and the proletarian abyss?" While he was undoubtedly referring to Stalin's Soviet Union as Hitler's left-wing bookend, he could just as well have been referring to the assertive British working-class and the fear of approaching political degeneration.

According to historian Gareth Stedman-Jones, there was a pervasive "slum-life" literature in Britain throughout the 19th and early 20th century that portrayed the lower working-class as mired in "slums," "dens," "swamps," "deeps," "wilds," and "abyss." These popular writings shaped middle and upper-class views of the lower classes while also stimulating an evangelical movement to civilize these "social inferiors."

Stedman-Jones also points out that during times of insecurity, fears for property were combined with a great emotive yearning to re-establish personal relations between the classes. When the King does manage to deliver a message via radio, several images are strung together of "regular" British citizens huddled around their radios in a British version of FDR's fireside chats. One axiom that can be applied to any movie is that if you are shown large numbers of people listening raptly to any leader and there is not a whiff of dissent, you know you are being conned.

The last scene of the movie shows King George VI waving to a massive crowd gathered dutifully outside Buckingham Palace as World War II commences. Logue stands in the background proudly watching him. The masses gathered outside were about to shape history. Hitler was defeated and in the parliamentary election of 1945 that followed the war British voters threw out of office one of the war's heroes, Winston Churchill. The Labour Party won almost 50% of the vote with a mandate to make Britain more democratic and egalitarian.

Extending the theme of the movie in a collective direction, attention was shifted from one man's affliction to the social and economic problems of the whole nation. The historian Tony Judt concludes that after the war there was a belief in Britain that the government had the duty and ability to mobilize people and resources to improve health care, provide jobs and to restore an aging infrastructure.

In this sense The King's Speech is a historical anachronism masquerading as a buddy movie. Learning history by watching films is always dangerous. Their dramatic strength is generally their scholarly weakness.

Further Readings:

Tony Judt - Postwar

Gareth Stedman-Jones - Languages of Class - Studies in English Working Class History

Paul Watzlawick - The Language of Change

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hereafter - Are You Talking to Me?

The departing soul hovers about as a dream. Homer - The Odyssey

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators
. Freud - Our Attitudes Toward Death

But at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke..., "Yes, it was death! I died and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening."
Tolstoy - War and Peace

Spirituality is a tricky business. Ask ten random people on the West side of Los Angles if they are religious and my bet is that eight out of ten will respond, "I'm not religious I'm spiritual." This is sociology of course, not theology. The spiritual smorgasbord seems to offer everything from organic foods to yoga - Herman Hesse to Deepak Chopra.

Clint Eastwood's new film Hereafter, is a movie about alienation, companionship and love as well as the despair that results from incomparable loss. It is a reflection of that distinctively American phenomena - our faith in faith, our belief that belief itself offers its own reward. Religion is in the vicinity of the film but God has been banished from town. The faith, such as it is, is that there is in fact an afterlife and it is possible to communicate with those who inhabit it. The film is spiritual - not religious.

The movie involves three separate stories that converge too neatly at the end, as if we all meet in the end or at least meet the same end. George (played by Matt Damon) is a working-class loner who loves Charles Dickens. He is also blessed and cursed with the ability to talk to the dead, a gift that can attract worshipers or get you crucified. Marie is a French political journalist who has "come back from the dead" after drowning in an Indonesian Tsunami. And Marcus, a young English boy, goes in search of his twin brother Jason who has been killed in a street accident.

Presenting metaphysical images in film is not easy. If we can never imagine our own death, it is even more difficult to picture a satisfying or convincing afterlife. Dwelling for too long on the threshold of the invisible induces boredom and incredulity, which is the main reason why Eastwood offers only brief and gauzy glimpses into the other world.

The movie opens with a horrifying scene of nature out of control. A Tsunami separates Marie and her boyfriend and reminds us that there is a thin division between the serene and the violent. After Marie is swept away, dies and comes back, she and her boyfriend stumble upon each other amid the wreckage of thousands of homes and lives.

For all of the main characters things fall apart. Marie loses her job at a Paris television station and decides to write a book about Socialist Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand. George is laid off from his factory job after a downsizing agreement "cooked up" between the union and management. After losing his twin, Marcus is taken away from his drug-addicted mother and is sent to a foster home.

Marie starts her book on Mitterrand but quickly decides that a book about politics is too mundane and turns to a memoir about her own death experience - a change in direction that she regards as an awakening of sorts. While the film isn't hectoring about the spiritual quest, you can almost hear Eastwood whisper that politics and the prosaic world are not significant given what awaits us. Forget about the struggles in the material plane and the things that we eventually lose. Concentrate on what really matters.

Go back and read the conversation between Odysseus and the dead Achilles in The Odyssey for an alternative view of this life and the next. When Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld he observes that Achilles rules as a King there as he had on earth. Achilles admonishes Odysseus to cling for as long as possible to life on earth as even the lowliest position there is superior to life among the bodiless phantoms in the kingdom of the dead. This life-affirming attitude was later turned upside down by tendencies within monotheism which saw the after-life as the real prize and reduced our current existence to mere preparation.

The title of Marie's autobiography is The Afterlife - A Conspiracy of Silence. This is laughable of course as the search for the supernatural is a massive industry. Capitalism, which "endlessly assimilates," long ago transformed what passes for spirituality into a commercial enterprise. After the movie I Googled "Communicate with the dead" and generated 8 million references. While it is fairly easy to create a cultural guru or fad, deep faith cannot be willed or marketed into existence. As Michael Harrington has noted, "An isolated philosopher can dream a faith that should be, but only masses of people, responding to something very real within their own experience, can make a church."

George has a different dilemma - in some sense he wrestles with the dilemma of the creative artist. He lies in bed at night listening to Dickens audiotapes and spontaneously travels to London for a Dickens tour. Searching for the sources of his artistic hero's literary work, George reject's his brother's (think of a shallow Hollywood agent) attempt to turn his unique talents into a business. Like a number of Dickens characters - Jacob Marley comes to mind - George lives in spiritual chains, paralyzed by a gift that is also a burden.

In a way, Eastwood's exploration of this character and his "powers," is also an exploration of the hope and risks of artistic creation. What happens when you attempt to conjure the healing power of art and inspiration doesn't appear? What risks are you taking when the "miracles" you used to perform have become empty gestures?

The most effecting of the three stories follows Marcus and his twin brother Jason. It's impact lies not merely with the immediacy of the loss, but because the story profoundly reminds us that we are the others that others think of. Marcus works his way through a number of charlatans and impotent Church figures before - like a Dickens street urchin - he finds George. When Marcus finally talks to his brother it doesn't amount to much but a few familiar cliches; in the afterlife you are both weightless (the thing that Achilles lamented) and "all things all at once." But Marcus' struggle to survive a death that is also the death of a big part of himself, is deeply moving.

Eastwood finally attempts to create an image of order out of all this chaos and death. He looks briefly over the brink but pulls back to provide the audience with something comfortable and reassuring - mundane earthly love.

George's power of intimacy comes through his hands. At the beginning of the film Marie reaches for a young girl who has been swept along with her in the flood. She yells to the girl, "Grab my hand." The last scene of the movie is Marie and George holding each others hands. The Hereafter returns to the here and now. After all the spiritual hokum Eastwood might just be saying, "reach out to one another."

As for Francois Mitterrand, I definitely would have liked to have read a book about one of the political architects of the modern French social system that Nicolas Sarkozy is now trying to dismantle. With respect to Marie's book on the afterlife, I'll just have to wait and see.

Further Reading

Garrett Stewart - Death Sentences - Styles of Dying in British Fiction

Michael Harrington - Politics at God's Funeral - The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization

Roy Foster - W.B. Yeats - Volume II - The Arch Poet - I'm reading this one now and it is fascinating how much Yeats was obsessed with communicating with the dead through mediums, seances, automatic writing and even through a machine that supposedly received and amplified messages from the spirit world. A similar machine appears in Hereafter. Even so, he pushed himself away from the Ouija Board long enough to write the most lasting poetry of the Irish rebellion.

Brian Friel - Faith Healer - Ireland's greatest living playwright explores the link between healing, artistic creation and sacrifice

Monday, October 11, 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story - Defending the Spirit of Play

Craig, the 16 year old protagonist of the film It's Kind of a Funny Story, commits himself to the local psychiatric hospital as the only alternative to jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, whereupon he meets the usual head-case suspects. In one corner of his floor is the schizophrenic. Over there is the delusional paranoid. There is a depression wing populated mostly by teenagers. Muqtada is a catatonic Egyptian and Solomon is a Hasidic Jew who ingested 100 too many LSD tablets. I'll let you guess where that story line is headed. They are all harmless, lovable nuts - despite the fact that a couple of them have tried to kill themselves. The patients, outside of an occasional outburst, are not crushed by unbearable suffering. Genuine mental pain is not the stuff of comedy. They mostly go about their quirky merry way.

The film is therefore not unlike the 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The big difference in this current look inside the "nuthouse," is the absence of a Nurse Ratched, the Cuckoo's Nest embodiment of malevolent bureaucratic control who R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) ends up strangling. Dr. Minerva, the psychiatrist who "treats" Craig, oozes wisdom and concern. During therapeutic sessions she sounds like the psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the so-called humanistic school of psychotherapy, a post-Freudian branch which placed "unconditional positive regard" at the center of the therapeutic "encounter." "It's not surprising that you are disappointed about that Craig. I would be too." Humanist oriented psychologists generally provide herbal tea during their sessions.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is cute and pretty much devoid of political content - unless you see the whole therapeutic apparatus itself as having political implications. Many names come to mind who have taken this position: Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic), Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia), Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided), and the most incisive critic of the ethos of therapeutic bureaucracy, Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism, Revolt of the Elites and The True and Only Heaven).

Early in the film Craig's parents come to visit him only to discover that he has had second thoughts about admitting himself to the hospital and wants to return to school. Craig's mother responds by telling him that "They (the psychiatrists) are professionals who can help in ways that we can't." Perhaps the filmmakers were making an ironic point or merely suggesting that the family is the place where you first learn that you will not get what you want. At any rate, I thought of Lasch when I heard the line.

In his later writings - he died in 1994 - Lasch railed against what he called the "reign of specialized expertise" that he asserted grew out of the particular trajectory of modern capitalism. For Lasch, a centralized therapeutic culture embodied in the growing "helping professions," undermined democratic hopes by making citizens "clients" of state sanctioned "intervention" into our private and family lives. Workers were turned into mere consumers of the products of their labor by uniting sophisticated advertising techniques with modern technology. These insidious trends, Lasch argued, produced unhealthy dependency relationships and civic passivity. Moreover, in a society dominated by the belief that a person's social or class position is exclusively a result of their own abilities, the fight for social change is abandoned in favor of "self-realization." Class politics is internalized.

As Lasch pointed out in The Culture of Narcissism, one of the primary counterweights to an increasingly controlled and rationalized world is play. In play, we engage in arbitrary inventions, risk and chance - all of the dynamics that have been expunged from our routinized work environments. It's not a coincidence that when Craig and Bobby, his older mental hospital mentor, want to escape their confinement they head for the same place that McMurphy and the Chief went for respite in Cuckoo's Nest - the basketball court. Without play, the poet Richard Hugo wrote, people face too often and too immediately their impending doom.

According to Andrew Solomon, whose book The Noonday Demon is about his own struggle with depression, the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, the ability to let productive life instincts elaborate themselves. By the end of the film Craig begins to elaborate a different future, his survival becoming its own kind of sanity.

The particular vision he outlines for himself would have made Christopher Lasch smile. He develops a craft - painting (hard work). He embraces the support of his family and friends (loyalty). He volunteers at the hospital he has just been released from (community). He jettisons his grandiose fantasies and immerses himself in the prosaic pleasures of everyday life (personal clarity).

One of the last scenes in the movie has Craig skipping down the sidewalk alive to his own playful desire. There is no overriding architecture to Craig's social life - the kind that might be discovered or invented in a dynamic political movement - but he has made "progress," another idea that Lasch was deeply suspicious of.

As I mentioned, Craig is only 16. I say give him time. Our society just might catch up with him. How's that for hope?

Further Reading:

Christopher Bollas - Being A Character - Psychoanalysis and Self Experience
Adam Phillips - Going Sane - Maps of Happiness
Jefferson Cowie - Stayin' Alive - The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network and the Escape From Solidarity

Despair is at the center of The Social Network; despair about the inability to connect, about the feeling that you don't matter, about being so inarticulate that you can't seem to get your message across, or that the message you think you are sending is not consistent with the message that people receive. All this is cast against the popular operating assumption that Facebook, the communications platform that Mark Zukerberg created, allows us to "connect" with millions of people we don't even know.

A media conceit about Zukerberg is that he epitomizes the social stance of the rebel - a visionary out to destroy paradigms, a rule breaker of the historically necessary sort. According to Ben Mezrich, the author of the book from which the film draws its somewhat fictionalized account, Zukerberg is the "ultimate rebel revolutionary just fighting the good fight." David Denby, the New Yorker magazine film reviewer describes the film's director David Fincher as someone who has always been "obsessed with outsiders and rebels."

Although I have not read Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, after watching the film it was not clear to me what exactly Zukerberg was rebelling against. There was certainly a Harvard power structure (At the time of Zukerberg's attendance the President of Harvard was Lawrence Summers) that attempted to keep the students from doing stupid things to themselves or others, but the film doesn't portray it as any more "oppressive" than any well-heeled parent would want. And while Zukerberg obsesses about getting into one of the exclusive Harvard social clubs, the stakes don't seem particularly high.

I was left with the sense that those who describe Zukerberg as a rebel use the term in a rather limited way, as someone who has a stubborn and rebellious entrepreneurial drive and a contentious personal style. If the film can be believed, he once attended a business meeting in his pajamas. But if you are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not a particularly brave stunt. It usually takes more than adolescent acting out to make the ruling class nervous.

There are other writers of course, who have offered a more profound definition of the rebel spirit. One of the most ambitious attempts was made by Albert Camus. His book, The Rebel, was published in 1951. For Camus, rebellion was a way of constituting your being - I rebel therefore I am. He distinguished between negative rebellions that derive from resentment (He draws extensively from German philosopher Max Scheler's book Resentment) and a positive rebellion that "breaks the seal" of prolonged impotence and "allows the whole being to come into play." Camus was making a case for exploited workers and those who lived under various forms of slavery and social oppression. For Camus, the true rebel refuses to be humiliated while avoiding the conclusion that others should be.

Camus' rebels don't revolt by themselves. A key component of positive rebellion is solidarity, which justifies the faith and passion of revolt. The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty describes solidarity as a capability for "imaginative identification" with the details of other people's lives, and suggests that we work to expand the range of "us" by keeping a lookout for the marginalized, those who are too often imagined as "they."

It is not easy to do this as we are often more comfortable in our "little platoons," like the clubs that Zukerburg was bitter about not being invited into, or with anemic abstractions like "humanity."

Unlike Zukerberg, Camus was a sensualist, an intellectual who felt more comfortable on a soccer field than with what he called the "professional humanists" who sat in Paris cafes. He knew the joy of "living among bodies and through one's body..." on the beaches of Algiers and in the combat of athletics. When he was young he was a goal keeper on his local soccer team, a place where he said he learned everything he needed to know about loyalty and fraternity. Camus lived with a constant feeling of exile and displacement, and it is here and only here where there could be a connection with Zukerberg.

Zukerberg is not a "geek" as so many have described him, but someone who lacks character and feeling and what Camus called "a strange kind of love," that connects you to those who live in a state of social humiliation. Facebook is a mirror not a window into the lives of others. Despite the hundreds or even thousands of "Friends," the image we see when we look at it is mostly the purged mini-narratives of ourselves.

When I was re-reading The Rebel for this review, an image kept coming to my mind. I tried to imagine Camus sitting in front of a computer waiting for a response from Sartre to his Friend request. Every time I thought of the image I laughed.

For all the billions that Zukerberg has made, I just can't take him or his invention seriously.

Further reading:

Albert Camus - The Rebel
Tony Judt - The Burden of Responsibility, Blum, Camus, Aron and the French 20th Century
Richard Rorty - Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps

While Money Never Sleeps ostensibly takes place amidst the cutthroat world of high finance, the real theme of the film is fathers - failed fathers, surrogate fathers, would-be fathers, the fathers of Wall Street - and the guilt they often carry. It is also about the struggle for success and how often we are muddled about how to talk about it, define it and live with it.

Upon leaving prison, Gordon Gekko sets out to frame the time that he has left through two goals. He wants to reestablish a relationship with his now grown but estranged daughter and get back into the "game" of manipulating money, companies and people, the other part of his life that once provided meaning. While Gekko has already lost his son through a drug overdose while he was in prison, he is still not clear about which of his goals takes priority. He is, so to speak, emotionally over-leveraged. Jake Moore, an ambitious Wall Street investment banker, complicates matters as he is living with and plans to marry Gekko's daughter Winnie.

Sigmund Freud wrote a paper in 1916 titled 'Those Wrecked by Success,' the product of his clinical work with patients who fell ill "upon fulfillment of a wish and put an end to all enjoyment of it." Freud wrestled with the implications of desire - the ways in which guilt can surface at the most unexpected times, turning the anticipated satisfaction of achievement into symptoms.

The four main protagonists of the film - Gekko, Jake, Winnie and Bretton James (a contemporary version of Gekko's younger self) can't seem to succeed without also failing. If Gekko goes back to his old ways he loses his daughter. When Jake focuses too much on succeeding he loses Winnie. Winnie can't seem to distinguish between her father and Jake, even though she has agreed to marry him. And Bretton James, who runs a top investment bank and has Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children (a painting representing in part an uncontrollable appetite) on his office wall, is so hypnotized by his pursuit of success that he can only answer "more" when asked by Jake what his monetary end-game is.

In analytic terms the characters are compulsives, determined to act out repetitive patterns that they are not aware of. Freud, who also wrote about repetition compulsions, outlined not so much the cliche that if we don't remember our (unconscious) past we are condemned to repeat it, but rather that we often lack the ability to remember in ways that are healthy - or at least in ways that allow us to develop a different vocabulary when talking about ourselves. It is pretty clear to Director Oliver Stone that this compulsion to repeat can paralyze not only individuals but a whole society. If, as the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips suggests, the task of psychotherapy is to turn personal pain and crisis into meaning, then something similar can be said about an economic and social crisis. Politics is partly about who wins the battle of providing that meaning.

For Phillips, a breakdown can often be the precursor of a breakthrough, where previously repressed questions find their way to the surface. Some people go "insane" while others develop healthier ways of living. Applied to a society - our society - we face the same question. Will the most recent failure of capitalism - not crisis of greed - presage a further repetition and breakdown or a different way of talking about and debating what we want to be successful at? If, as Jon Stewart suggests, the Tea Party is an insane wing of our social life, then who represents the healthy political patient who is confronting the dirty and repressed secrets of poverty and inequality? Can we, in other words, fail in a way that is more productive because we actually learn something from it?

Stone, through the film's narrator, repeatedly invokes the word "insanity" to describe engaging in the same behavior but expecting a different result. The content of the film's economic message is not bad. During a talk at what looks to be a college, the fawning students cheer Gekko, now a celebrity criminal, when he channels historian Kevin Phillips to the effect that our country's economy has gone from manufacturing products to packaging and selling arcane financial instruments. Collateralized Debt Obligations anyone? We have a "disease" he says, that is "systemic and global." But the virtue of Kevin Phillip's book Bad Money is that he actually names the system - "global capitalism" - that organizes a large part of our lives and structures the logic of Wall Street. Stone, on the other had, lets Gekko get away with propounding the supposedly universal principle that the key drivers of human behavior are greed and envy. Greed is not good if it is used to explain too much, to reduce a historically contingent economic system to individual psychology. In fact greed is not an emotion that the vast majority of Americans have the ability to either experience or act upon. Most people are merely trying to survive.

Money Never Sleeps lacks what C. Wright Mills called a "sociological imagination," the analytical ability to describe "the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of social structure in which biography and history intersect." What Stone does show us is that in the tortured logic of Wall Street, a person or company can only succeed when another person or company is failing. The appropriate analogy is Las Vegas.

Fathers disappear, are taken away, are thrown out or kill themselves. They also attempt to devour their children. But they also keep coming back to ask forgiveness and to reclaim their rightful place in the social and familial order. Wall Street is, after all, a very high end boys club. The movie implies that one of the only places of repose from the viciousness of economic life is the family - that haven in a heartless world.

There are allot of shiny baubles in Money Never Sleeps: new motorcycles, diamond earrings, and shimmering dresses. They are commodities and therefore come with a dis-satisfaction guarantee. But other than a vaguely "lefty" website that Winnie runs and Jake's earnest belief in investing in hydrogen fusion as the source of environmental redemption, there is not much dissent against the powers that be. If money never sleeps, the rest of society apparently does.

In this respect, at the end of the movie I felt like an activist's version of Bretton James. I wanted more.

Further Readings:

Adam Phillips - Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored
Adam Phillips - Flirtation
Kevin Phillips - Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of Capitalism
Goya - Robert Hughes (see the last chapter for the Spanish political context of Goya's Saturn painting)
C. Wright Mills - The Sociological Imagination

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When Irene Dunne Sang "Solidarity Forever" By Harold Meyerson

When Tomorrow Comes, the lefty-est studio film you never heard of

Scour the lists of pro-labor American films, and I promise you, you will find no mention of the 1939 Universal melodrama When Tomorrow Comes. Do the same for feminist, or proto-feminist, or embryonically feminist American pictures, and again, you will see no mention of When Tomorrow Comes.

It's not hard to understand why. To begin with, it's not an easy film to see: it doesn't appear to have been released as a DVD or video cassette. It doesn't even get a plot synopsis on the website of Turner Classic Movies, which suggests that even TCM's manically diligent cineastes haven't seen it.

More fundamentally, a look at When Tomorrow Comes' credits doesn't lead you to think for a nanosecond that this will be a picture with provocative - let alone progressive - politics. It's a tear-jerking tale of thwarted love from the master of Thirties romantic melodrama, director-producer John Stahl. The screenplay is by Dwight Taylor, whose best known screenplays were for the Astaire-Rogers films The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat and Follow the Fleet. It stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, who a little less than a year previous had starred in the classic weepie, Leo McCarey's Love Affair, and Stahl's film is clearly an attempt to cash in again on the Dunne-Boyer romantic chemistry. The bare-bones plot summation - waitress and world-famous concert pianist fall madly in love, but he is stuck in a hopeless marriage to his mentally ill wife, so waitress and pianist must part - doesn't suggest we are on the same political turf as, say, The Grapes of Wrath, which Fox released five months after Universal premiered When Tomorrow Comes. And should you be privy to the details of Irene Dunne's off-screen life - she was a devout Catholic and a staunch Republican - the idea that she'd star in a lefty picture is silly to the point of ridiculous.

Even a more fleshed-out synopsis may not sound all that promising. In Act I, Boyer meets Dunne while dining in a Manhattan chain-restaurant, and falls for her. In Act II, he takes her away to his Long Island estate, where he serenades her on the piano (only then does she realize who he is), she sings a few bars (Dunne was the star of Showboat) and they are caught up in a ferocious hurricane which compels them to abandon their return to the city and spend the night in a church loft (lest you think any hanky-panky ensues) while the water threatens to wash over them. In Act III, the next morning, the storm has subsided, and Boyer tells Dunne that he is married. She flees back to the city; he finds her and introduces her to his wife, who has clearly descended into a state of delusional space-cadethood; the space cadet comes out of her trance just long enough to visit Dunne and tell her that while she (Dunne) can land any guy, she (the wife) has become so addled that she knows she can't so she is clinging to Boyer and hopes that Dunne will understand her predicament and give up any thoughts of horning in on her marriage. Dunne understands. She and Boyer have a tearful farewell, and he sails off to Paris.

But what is it that causes Boyer to fall for Dunne? Let's look more closely at Act I.

The film begins in the Manhattan restaurant where Dunne works - a vast, high volume, low-price joint that is part, apparently, of a citywide chain. The waitresses are buzzing about a meeting to be held that night at Unity Hall, where they will vote on whether to strike. One comically nervous waitress - Dunne's roommate, it turns out - is so flustered she drops her tray and breaks some dishes. "There goes my whole week's salary," she laments. "That's all going to be changed tonight," Dunne assures her. But the roommate fears that management will reject their offer and they'll be compelled to strike. Dunne reassures her that that's unlikely. "Our demands are reasonable," she says. Then she cautions her roommate not to speak so loudly, lest management spies overhear. "Walls have ears," she says, "and great big ones in Karbs Resturants," the name of the chain.

At this point, the manager - an officious type we are meant to hate at first sight - snaps at them to get moving. A customer has just come in. "Feed him and get him out of here," the manager says. "Space is money at lunch time." The manager loathes his customers as much as he loathes his staff.

The customer is Boyer, who is so entranced with Dunne that he pumps her roommate for info on where he could see Dunne again, which is how he ends up sneaking into Unity Hall for the union meeting - quite the most remarkable scene in the picture, and one of the most remarkable scenes, politically, in the entire inter-war major studio cinema. While a number of Thirties pictures favorably portrayed career women, this scene depicts working girls - in the parlance of the picture and the parlance of the times - as serious political actors who are able to conquer their fears and take on an employer that abuses and spies on them.

The scene begins with one union staffer in the film - a young man who also has the hots for Dunne - reporting that their talks with management have gone nowhere. "We'll strike!" one waitress shouts. "No we won't," shouts another. "What chance do we have - a bunch of girls against an organization like Karb's?" "We're not a bunch of girls," another waitress replies. "We're a union standing together!"

Quite the discussion follows. One waitress says she can't afford to strike; she is taking care of her mother. Another says she's taking care of her grandchildren because their father was killed in a strike; striking is the last thing she wants to do. With the debate growing more raucous - and sounding eminently plausible - some in the crowd ask Dunne to speak.

"I don't know what right I have to speak," Dunne begins. "Perhaps none, because in a way I'm more fortunate than you." (That is, she doesn't have kids or parents to take care of.)

"But I've worked with you girls and I've seen the worry and the fear on your faces. I've seen you tremble at the thought of losing your jobs. I've seen you struggle to make one penny do for two, the way you skimp and save and still never have an extra dollar for a new hat, a pair of stockings, any one of a million things a girl might want."

At this point, Stahl cuts to Boyer, who is plainly entranced.

"We've all heard these speeches tonight," Dunne continues. "Some of you have children. Some of you have parents, aged and sick, depending on you. And it's not for me or [the union staffer] to tell you what to do. I'd rather cut off my right arm than be responsible for a decision that would bring you more suffering or more hardship.

"But we want the right to stand on our own feet, to enjoy life, to feel like free human beings. And you can't go on just hoping for these things. That's what [the staffer means] when he says you've got to fight. He knows nobody's going to hand them to you on a silver platter. You've got to go in there and make them listen. And if the only way to do that is to strike, then I say Strike!"

Cheers ring out. A voice vote is taken; the waitresses shout their decision to strike. Irene Dunne - nice, Republican Irene Dunne, who in Showboat sang "Only Make Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" - leads the waitresses in singing "Solidarity Forever." Honest.

But the scene is remarkable not just because it's Irene Dunne who sings the anthem of American labor. It's also remarkable because it takes the narrative of American labor beyond where American labor itself, during its most dynamic decade, was taking it. While the Thirties saw a tumultuous uprising and unionizing of American workers in the country's leading industries - steel and auto, most of all - most of that unionization came among preponderantly male work forces, in unions that were entirely male-led. Even unions that were substantially female, like the clothing and garment unions, were entirely male-led. There were brilliant female unionists who came out of the left, of course (Millie Jeffrey in the UAW and Rose Pesotta in the ILGWU, to name just two), but they took a back seat within their union leadership. It was the only seat they were permitted to take.

As for rank-and-file militancy in female-dominated occupations in the Thirties, it was a sometime thing. Teachers, at that point, weren't joining unions, nor were many office workers. The greatest outbreaks of mass militancy among female clothing workers had taken place at the height of the Progressive Era, when the needle-trade unions - the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers - were still forming and rank-and-file women leaders could still come to the fore.

The vast majority of waitresses went through the Thirties with no trace of union ferment in their worksites - but there were exceptions. In his 1955 impressionistic history of the Thirties left, Part of Our Time, the great Murray Kempton recounts the sit-down strikes of Detroit-area waitresses and department-store clerks during the two months following the UAW's epochal (and successful) occupation of General Motors' factories in Flint. "You'll be sitting in the office any March day of 1937," Myra Wolfgang, recounting her days as a young organizer for HERE, told Kempton, "and the phone would ring and the voice at the other end would say, 'My name is Mary Jones; I'm a soda clerk at Liggett's; we've thrown the manager out and we've got the keys. What do we do now?' And you'd hurry over to the company to negotiate and over there they'd say, 'I think it's the height of irresponsibility to call a strike before you've even asked us for a contract,' and all you could answer was , 'You're so right.'"

So the Unity Hall scene in When Tomorrow Comes captures that slice of the Thirties, but even amid that decade's labor turmoil, it was an unusual slice. In highlighting it, When Tomorrow Comes was as much a prophecy of feminism to come as it was a representative chronicle of Thirties women's activism. Precisely because it fuses the class-based activism of the Thirties with a feminist sensibility that was to grow in future decades - even as feminists,' and everyone's, class sensibilities declined - it actually depicts a kind of idealized left that never (or hardly ever)really was, as if the Thirties Left and the Seventies Left could magically combine.

However far ahead of social reality When Tomorrow Comes may have been, it was even farther ahead, in its combination of class and gender politics, of anything else the studios were turning out. Films of the Thirties often featured assertive career women - the Rosalind Russell part in His Girl Friday, for instance. Others possessed a kind of class-and labor consciousness, which you can see in such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Our Daily Bread. But as for films that combine the quasi-feminism of the career-woman films with the labor consciousness of a handful of 30s productions - as for films in which the lead character is an assertive working-class woman asserting herself as a labor firebrand among her fellow female workers - well, there's When Tomorrow Comes.

But the most remarkable thing about the picture when viewed today is what it assumes about its audience. Dunne comes across not just as a beautiful, caring woman but also as a gifted, charismatic labor leader - and she does so because this made her a more sympathetic character to the picture's audience, which was not a bunch of New York lefties, but, rather, middle-and working-class American women. If Dunne was going to be a potential home-wrecker, however unintentionally, the filmmakers mitigated this by making her an otherwise model citizen - that is, by making her the Irene Dunne incarnation of Mother Jones. That may have been a questionable calculation by 1939, when the New Deal fervor of the early and mid-Thirties had begun to wane, but it was a calculation that no studio would have let filmmakers get away with in any other decade in American history. The feminist union parable Norma Rae was made for a more socially conscious audience at a time (1979)when the great movie-going public of the pre-television age had long since fragmented into distinct sub-groups. When Tomorrow Comes was made for a much larger, less differentiated public: the women who flocked to romantic dramas about the travails of sympathetic heroines. Only in the Thirties would a studio bet that this mass audience would find Dunne more sympathetic because she organizes her fellow waitresses.

In fact, though, that's precisely the reason why Boyer falls for Dunne. When he meets her after the meeting, what he says is, "You were superb. I've never heard anything like that. I've never met a woman before who could make speeches, call strikes, serve pancakes, and look beautiful at the same time."

Where, o where, did this feminine ideal come from? Is there anything in the careers of writer Dwight Taylor and director John Stahl that would suggest they'd come up with When Tomorrow Comes?

Perhaps there is. Taylor, the Astaire-Rogers specialist who wrote the script, was an elected officer of the Screen Writers Guild during the Thirties. He was also the son of Laurette Taylor, one of the great Broadway actresses of the first half of the 20th Century, much acclaimed for her unmannered, naturalistic performances (her last role was that of the mother in the original production of The Glass Menagerie). Stahl, who produced and directed the picture, often made "weepies" - indeed, in the Thirties, he was the master of the genre - in which assertive women were trapped or undone by the collision of their private passions with social constraints. In 1932, he teamed, for the first time, with Dunne in the film Back Street, in which Dunne, a feisty working woman, abandons her job and, for all intents and purposes, her life to become a kept woman of a married man she loves - skulking around back streets, isolated from other people, her life reduced to a relationship that cannot ever be publicly acknowledged. In 1934, Stahl made Imitation of Life, in which a light-colored African American woman rejects her mother to pass for white, with predictably tragic consequences. Clearly, Stahl and Taylor brought a combination of feminist, non-conformist, and unionist sensibilities to the project - a combination singularly absent not just from any other Irene Dunne picture, but any other picture during that period.

When Tomorrow Comes is hardly Stahl's best picture, though. As sheer narrative, the three acts don't really cohere. The labor activism of the first act is swept away by the hurricane-like passion of Act II, though the reason Dunne has to go back to the city amidst the storm is because she has to picket the next day. (We do learn, near the picture's end, that the waitresses win their strike.) The conflict with Boyer's wife isn't even introduced until Act III, though it is the central drama of the film.

But as an oddly assembled proto-feminist statement, When Tomorrow Comes does actually - if roughly - cohere. Boyer is bound to a relationship with a wife who needs him, but who is incapable, most of the time, of being in the world. He falls in love with a woman who is not only in the world but capable of changing it. Indeed, he falls in love with Dunne because she's capable of changing the world.

Stahl and Taylor love her for this as well, for her leadership capacities as a woman and as a worker. They know that their audience - at least a good chunk of their audience - will love her for this, too. I miss that audience, and the American from which it sprung.

Further Readings:

Murray Kempton - Part of Our Times: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties
Dorthy Sue Cobble - The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America

Friday, September 3, 2010

The American - Starring George Clooney

I chose the new George Clooney film The American as my first movie to review without knowing much about it other than that the main character is a hired assassin and that the story takes place in the Abruzzo region of Italy. With the politically active Clooney in the lead role and the suggestive and politically loaded title, I assumed the film would deal with politics in some fashion. I was mistaken. While there is a fair amount of bloodshed in the film - three perfunctory shootings in the first five minutes - the context of the killings is left purposefully obscure. It is never revealed who Clooney's character - named Jack - is working for, what his purposes are, who he has killed and why, or the social or political impact of his "work." Nothing is known or revealed about Jack's past other than a military style tattoo on his shoulder indicating previous involvement in some branch of the US armed forces.

While the obscurity of the sources of violence and the randomness of its targets can be an artistic jumping off point for a philosophical or political critique of violence itself, it is clear that this is not what the filmmakers are after. Unlike Syriana, a previous Clooney film where the violence played out against the convoluted logic of Middle Eastern politics and perceived American interests, the violence and cruelty in The American is like a moral green-screen - the backdrop for a snapshot of personal anguish. This role for Clooney is a form of political devolution, from a film with characters that were highly politicized - or at least motivated by some understandable political end - to one stripped of politics but retaining the violence. It's really a film about someone trying to escape from self imposed isolation.

It is in this way that it can be seen as a type of American "political" film. Literary critic Irving Howe pointed out in his book Politics and the Novel that what in a European context would be called political ideology, in the United States often appears in the guise of religious, cultural or sexual issues. In Howe's view, "Very few American writers have tried to see politics as a distinctive mode of social existence, with values and manners of its own." In the United States, politics has been viewed by a large section of the American public and has often been portrayed in literature and on film as shallow, boring or inherently corrupting. For instance, Howe points out that at the end of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, Governor Willie Stark's political enabler Jack Burden wanders in "an isolation that a wounded intelligence is trying desperately to transform into the composure of solitude."

Clooney's character Jack is clearly a wounded and isolated intelligence. He is a man who looks at the world through a lens, either of his photography camera or the scope of his rifle. The only time he clearly seems to focus on and enjoy what he is doing is when he is assembling a new custom weapon that he has been paid to build or during sex with a local prostitute. I'm not sure if you can describe sex as a craft, but judging from the reaction of Jack's lover, I believe she would assent to that word. Jack is good with his hands, even if they are bloody.

In preparing the new rifle, Jack plays a slick assassin's version of the village cobbler. He loses himself in the work, paying close attention to the shape of the gun barrel, concentrating on how the parts of the rifle fit together and finely tuning its shape and weight. During these moments of work he is rooted in the material world, in what sociologist Richard Sennett refers to in his book The Craftsman, as a "lost space of freedom."

The priest, who befriends Jack in the medieval mountain village where he is hiding, tells him that he has the hands of a craftsman, not an artist. Sennett argues that an egalitarian ethos can be derived from the realization that everyone can become a craftsman if they have the wisdom to see the virtues of craftsmanship and the discipline to develop those skills. Jack has the skills - he is a "good man," his prostitute lover tells him - but he is unable to use those skills in a communal way, outside of his insular and paralyzed emotional world. There is no use for his finely honed rifle except as a tool for killing.

The film takes place primarily in the Abruzzo region of Italy, a starkly beautiful mountainous region east of Rome. The location of the film is not far from Pescina, the village where the writer Ignazio Silone was born and is now buried. Silone, best known for his two novels Fontamara and Bread and Wine, which are both set in the Abruzzo, was a man who wrestled with the relationship between political means and ends, how to reconcile his religious beliefs with the discipline political parties require, and the historical fate of the peasants he grew up with and next to. In The American, the landscape is about aesthetics, a visual opulence that exists for the cinematographer to capture. In Silone's novels, the land is life and livelihood - and politics is the cruel fight over who works it, who controls it and who reaps its bounty.

For Silone's literary characters, unlike Jack, there is no escape from the individual and collective action that is the essence of politics. In Mussolini's Italy the protagonists of Silone's stories act in ways that often prove tragic. But Silone concluded that to remain passive was a spiritual betrayal, a tragedy in itself. An early member of the Italian Communist Party, he later left the organization, choosing to describe himself as a Christian without a church and a socialist without a party.

Early in the movie, the village priest Father Benedetto (perhaps not coincidentally the same name as the revolutionary priest in Bread and Wine) tells Jack that because he is an American he believes that he can "escape history." Benedetto admonishes Jack, suggesting that he has committed more than his share of sins and asks him if he wants to confess. Jack declines. His attempt to escape his reduced condition is not through a redemptive confession, but neither is it through joining a more buoyant social community. The only path forward that he sees is the same one that Silone's main character sees in Bread and Wine, "that the only way to realize the good life...is to live it."

Jack tries to "get out" by living the love that has eluded him. Wounded and bleeding, he drives to meet his lover at an edenic spot on a river outside of town where he has both taken target practice with his new rifle and refused a baptism of love with the prostitute earlier in the film. There is no escape here either as the river has been polluted by the shell casings his lover finds - the empty symbolic remains of his chosen work.

Jack presses a bloodied hand against the glass of the car's window shield - another barrier separating him from the life he could not live. It's not necessarily politics, but it sure is sad.

Further Reading:

Bread and Wine - Ignazio Silone
Fontamara - Ignazio Silone
The Picaresque Saint - R.W.B. Lewis
Politics and the Novel - Irving Howe
Bitter Spring, A Life of Ignazio Silone - Stanislao G. Pugliese
The Craftsman - Richard Sennett